Steal From These Style Guides. Your Content Will Thank You.
“Update style guide” has been on my to-do list for months, but it keeps getting pushed aside for “more pressing” content marketing needs (like gathering gifs).
No more excuses.
Really, there’s nothing more pressing than consistent and high-quality content. And style guides ensure that everyone creating content has answers to their most nagging questions. Not only do style guides support a more fluid, enjoyable content experience, but they save you and your team a whole lot of time and headaches.
For example, instead of personally fielding every inquiry like, “Should I use serial commas?” or, “Do I spell it whitepaper, white paper, or white-paper?” you can simply direct confused contributors to the style guide.
In the process of redefining our style guide, I’ve sifted through some of the best style guides out there…and have “borrowed” quite a few tidbits.
By seeing how other organizations convey their best practices for internal and external content creators (i.e. freelancers and guest contributors), you’ll have some help thinking of elements you might have missed, deciding on a structure that works for your team, and determining where your own guidelines should differ.
So whether you’re creating your first style guide, or preparing to revamp an outdated version, here are a few fantastic resources that will help you figure out what exactly to say, and how you and the rest of your organization should say it.
University of North Carolina
The University of North Carolina Chapel style guideline is an interactive online reference for informing the overall voice, tonality, design, writing style, and image of the UNC brand. The online guide streamlines efforts so that anything created—whether that be a blog post, formal letter, or web graphics—contributes to a singular brand image.
Why Is It Useful?
Their online guide is interactive, pithy, and easy-to-use. Useful for any contributor to the UNC brand, which obviously stretches wide and has many constituents. With a brand as big as UNC, each employee, student, alumni, prospective student, and other stakeholder may, at some point, need to understand the overall brand tonality. An online guide makes that easy to access, and easy to follow.
Look internally at possible common problems, and address those upfront in your style guide. For example, UNC—an elite and credible institution—called out a possible pitfall for writing in some hubris, right off the bat: “Don’t let pride come across as arrogance,” their style guide says. Instead, “When pointing out a measure of success, keep it honest and go easy with the superlatives.”
You can’t have a roundup of resources without mentioning the brilliant and ever-evolving MailChimp style guide. They keep it straightforward and make it easy to find what you’re looking for. Their guide breaks into eight linked sections: Hello., Voice and Tone, Writing for MailChimp, Writing for the Web, Grammar and More, Word and Phrase Bank, Writing for Our Blog, Writing and Contributing.
Why Is It Useful?
There’s a good reason why it’s the go-to example of a fantastically crafted style guide. Check out their “We’re X, not Y” section in Voice and Tone. This is one of the most useful exercises you can put your content team through. For example, if you were told to “be weird” in a blog post, would you know how to move forward? Probably not. But by hearing, “Be weird, but not inappropriate,” you’d understand that you can make “out there” observations as long as they’re still accessible and not alienating. Providing a counter-term does wonders for framing the voice and tone of content.
One of my favorite elements of this style guide, though, is how closely it follows its own guidelines. The tone and grammar is spot-on, turning the guide itself into an example of MailChimp’s finest content. Take this lesson to heart. Your style guide should reflect your brand’s own vision.
It starts with a shout-out to George Orwell’s six rules from “Politics and the English Language.” Rules which I, until reading The Economist’s style guide, had never heard. (Bad English major!) Prepare yourself for awesome:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The perfect introduction for anyone looking to write for such an authoritative publication.
Why Is It Useful?
The Economist style guide is nothing if not thorough. Check out their thoughts on grammar and usage, but more importantly, notice how this guide focuses on specific challenges facing contributors to The Economist, which covers world politics, economics, business, and science. To ensure consistency and correctness, they cover topics most guides might not think to include. For example, take a look at the topics beginning with the letter B. You’ll see technical elements such as how to use brackets, but also how to use Belarusian names. If you work for a global organization, you may want to take a page from this stye guide.
Note: You’ll also see the appearance of the “X, not Y” tactic in their Headings and Captions section.
“Scrupulous writers will also notice that their copy is edited only lightly and is likely to be used. It may even be read.” Enough said.
Chosen as one of the top content marketing brands, Gov.uk has continuously impressed us with their useful, straightforward content. When I stumbled across their writing guidelines, I realized that everything I love about their content is actually part of their “style.”
Why Is It Useful?
Anyone writing for Gov.uk can use this guide to structure their content effectively. It covers everything from “words to avoid” to “how to format specific content types.” But better than many guides, it helps each contributor understand the role of the site and the role of the writer. Or rather, the content designer:
In GDS, we’re called content designers. We don’t just write copy. We ‘design content’.
We look at the content and, working with designers and developers, we decide how best to present the information. We might think a tool, graphic, video etc is better than long text. It’s all about how best to meet the user need.
It’s no wonder their content is some of the best on the web.
I love the way Gov.uk has structured their style guide. It’s simple, useful, and transparent. The approach they take to educating their content crafters is the same approach they take to informing their audience. You won’t find any superfluous paragraphs here and, frankly, I’ve borrowed quite a few of their suggestions for our own style guide.
Creating a style guide is one of the most important things you can do to streamline your content operation. It will save your editors and writers time and curb confusion. Take a few hints from the guides above. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And all of these guides have tidbits to copy.
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